Jennie Coleman | President and co-owner of Equifruit

“Bananas Shouldn’t Be So Cheap”

The executive who heads up North America’s largest importer of Fairtrade bananas is on a trailblazing mission to transform the low prices endemic to the industry.

by Edward Vernon | Portrait photography by Karene-Isabelle Jean-Baptiste
This article was published in the June/July 2024 issue of Vision Magazine North America.

Jennie Coleman is the president and co-owner of Equifruit, a trailblazer in the Fairtrade banana industry based in Montreal, Canada. With her enthusiasm and a deep-seated passion for social equity, Coleman has been instrumental in growing Equifruit into North America’s largest importer of Fairtrade-certified bananas. Her efforts are not only helping change the industry—which is traditionally based on a low-price business model—but also significantly improving the livelihoods of countless banana plantation workers by ensuring they receive a fair wage.

In 2023, she received both the Women’s Produce Network Award from the Ontario Produce Marketing Association (OPMA) and the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Momentum Award, as she continues to make her mark on the industry and the world of business. Equifruit, which in April 2024 became B Corp certified, has also been included on the list of top growing companies by Canada’s Globe and Mail for the past two years, with its sales volume having grown by a massive 200% in the last three years.

Coleman—who studied German literature at the University of Toronto and speaks five languages—acquired Equifruit in 2013, having previously worked for over a decade in the rail division of Canadian manufacturing firm Bombardier Transportation, most recently as its business strategy director. That job led to the opportunity to live in various places around the world, including Zurich, Berlin and Beijing. Equifruit—previously called EquiCosta—was founded by a mother-daughter team but had remained a low-volume company until it was put up for sale a little more than a decade ago. Coleman’s purchase of the entity marked her entrance into the fresh produce industry.

Today, Equifruit thrives with a “small but mighty” team of 14 dedicated employees spread across Canada and Panama, driven by Jennie and her right-hand and co-owner, Kim Chackal. Together, Jennie and Kim infuse the company with a spirit of fun and creativity that lightens the often serious discourse around ethical sourcing and fair trade.

In this interview, Jennie shares what initially drew her to fair trade, explores the key factors behind Equifruit’s explosive growth, and discusses the challenging yet vital mission of transforming the banana industry’s traditional pricing model.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What first attracted you to the mission of Fairtrade International?

A few weeks into studying for my Master’s in German, I thought: ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not actually that interested in German literature.’ I knew a lot about Germany and Europe, but not much about the rest of the world. I applied to a number of volunteer programs around the world and was accepted to one at a primary school in Namibia through the now-defunct World Teach program, which was run by the Harvard Institute for International Development. The aim of the program was to support Namibia’s transition to English as the official language after gaining independence from South Africa. I had expected to focus on teaching English, but I ended up being more involved in setting up a school library and getting the kids to read, which I loved. 

That experience really taught me that communities grow and develop on their own terms when there is productive economic activity. When people, through good jobs, have the means to build their own institutions, then their community is going to develop in a much more productive and meaningful way than if it’s just international aid that gets dumped on their front doorstep. This is not any kind of great revelation, I understand that, but it was to me as a young and pretty naive person.

The essence of fair trade, which became clear to me during this time, is not about charity; it’s about creating equitable business opportunities. When we look for growers to work with, we look to ensure that they have good quality and that they are themselves good business people; that there’s good communication, and that there’s transparency in their business dealings. This partnership is enhanced by the Fairtrade Social Premium, which empowers communities to decide on their developmental trajectory.

What does receiving the RBC Momentum Award and the OPMA’s Women’s Produce Network Award mean to you personally and professionally?

The Ontario Produce Marketing Association recognized my efforts largely due to my advocacy for diversity within Canada’s produce industry. I realize how few female leaders there are in Canada in produce. It’s not that I think I’m exceptional, but I guess I am becoming something of a role model, and I do want to use it to lift other women up.

My decade at Equifruit has exposed me to lots of challenges, from blatant sexism to subtle microaggressions. Just yesterday somebody wrote me an email where he told me that my behavior on this one point had been inappropriate. I thought, ‘Would you ever send such a message to a male company president?’ I’ve pushed back against that kind of thing, and I’ve spoken up, and this likely contributed to my recognition by the OPMA. It’s encouraging, and it motivates me to continue breaking down barriers for future generations of women in our industry. 

The recognition at the Royal Bank of Canada’s gala, where I was a finalist for the Women Entrepreneurship Awards, was especially meaningful. There were 11,000 nominations, so when I went to the gala, I didn’t actually expect to hear my name. My story stood out to judges who were unfamiliar with me and my work within the fair trade and produce sectors.

This award from a sector outside of our usual fair trade and produce circles shows that our mission at Equifruit—to ensure fair pay—is resonating. It’s exciting to think that our company is gaining recognition alongside companies in other industries traditionally seen as more ‘exciting.’ This broader acknowledgment really validates what we’ve been doing and fuels our commitment to making a difference in the industry.

What do you think are the causes and drivers of the amazing growth Equifruit has been seeing over recent years?

When I took over Equifruit in 2013, I inherited a business that was really operating at a very subsistence level, shipping just one container of produce weekly. Early on, I learned that growth wasn’t optional—it was essential for operational success and to increase our impact on small growers and plantation workers, and we were really driven by that.

Back then, Equifruit was really focused on conveying every detail of Fairtrade, but guess what? Most consumers don’t care—they have problems of their own. When they get to the grocery store, they want a quick hit, to be told enough that they feel good about their purchase and move on with their grocery shopping. We can’t demand too much time from people or be a heavy emotional drain. 

Our marketing shifted post-pandemic. We realized that we would not have any of the in-person and trade show sales opportunities that were in our calendar, and we decided to really invest in marketing for the first time—embracing a full rebrand to ensure all brand touchpoints were cohesive. I think that that decision really helped to drive our sales.

Equifruit bananas being shipped by Ecuador’s Association of Small Banana Producers of El Guabo (ASOGUABO)

What did the rebrand focus on?

The strategy not only streamlined our message but also increased our appeal in the marketplace. Our rebranding included humor to engage consumers, followed by serious messages about fair compensation for farmers. This approach has really boosted our sales and allowed us to differentiate in a competitive market.

Despite the emergence of fair trade products from larger companies, Equifruit remains unique with our 100% Fairtrade commitment, which only strengthens our credibility. Our mission-driven strategy ensures that growth translates directly into greater impact, aiming to transform the banana industry through sustainable sales and effective retail programs.

One of the goals of the rebrand was to be impossible to ignore. We feel so strongly about the need for change in the banana industry that we don’t want to be sidelined. We don’t want to be known as a hippie-dippy, well-meaning female-run company that is dreaming of a better world. No, we want everyone to think about the importance of responsible procurement for bananas. We want everyone to be thinking about trade in the banana space all the time, and we want them to think of it through the lens of the Equifruit brand. We think that fair trade is necessary for the long-term sustainability of the banana industry.

Which supply chain stakeholder or stakeholders should shoulder most of the responsibility for ensuring the industry’s long-term sustainability?

The responsibility should be shared by all. At the World Banana Forum’s 4th Global Conference in Rome in March, the Banana Cluster—which represents the seven largest exporting countries in Latin America—issued a statement about this, as they have done for many years. They said that issues like gender equality, fair wages, environmental sustainability, and stopping the spread of the banana disease TR4 cannot be talked about without discussing shared responsibility. Banana importers in Europe and North America can’t ask for those things unless they’re willing to pay for them. And the Banana Cluster supports the Fairtrade International (which differs from Fair Trade USA) minimum price methodology as an anchor of fair compensation for sustainable production.

This sustainable pricing model not only enhances the quality of life for growers but also secures a future for the next generation in agriculture. Young people are more likely to return to farming if it offers a viable livelihood. By prioritizing fair compensation and not exploiting growers, we hope to inspire a new generation to continue cultivating our fruit under dignified conditions.

What are the biggest misconceptions about the fair trade fruit industry in general that you encounter both from the industry and from consumers?

In our collaboration with growers, both parties adhere to strict standards that qualify our fruit for Fairtrade International certification. Our commitment to sustainable practices across economic, social, and environmental areas inevitably increases production costs—well above the low market prices.

Fairtrade International sets a minimum price with our growers based on detailed evaluations of their sustainable production costs. This price, which we as buyers honor regardless of market fluctuations, forms the core of our Fairtrade commitment and significantly differs from the standard market prices. We also integrate a Fairtrade Social Premium of one U.S. dollar per case, which supports community projects chosen by the growers themselves.

A common misconception is that Fairtrade International differs from the market rate only by the social premium of one dollar. This view simplifies Fairtrade to a near-charitable contribution, which it is not. A substantial part of our impact comes from adhering to the Fairtrade minimum price, which ensures growers can sustain their operations and improve their communities.

This fair pricing allows us to address core issues in the banana industry highlighted at global forums, such as decent work conditions, climate change, and gender equity—all of which are unattainable without proper funding through fair prices. Despite challenges in maintaining buyer focus on these complex pricing structures, especially with fluctuating spot prices, our approach ensures we support a sustainable banana industry.

What are your immediate goals for Equifruit in the next few years? 

We continue to develop the Canadian market, but are very focused on developing the U.S. market, where the potential for growth is huge, especially as Fairtrade bananas are still underrepresented there. A significant portion of the U.S. population is likely to embrace our products, based on our positive messaging about the need for change. So, we are dedicating the majority of our efforts towards penetrating the U.S. market.

Currently, we operate in the United States similarly to the way we do in Canada, managing transportation from U.S. ports without a physical presence. We have a U.S. entity, but establishing a physical base in the United States is under consideration. 

How has the development of the U.S. market been going?

We’re actively pitching and have held numerous meetings with retailers and distributors. But we’ve encountered a similar issue to what we saw in Canada—decision paralysis. For us, patience is important, along with an understanding that changing mindsets doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a real fear among retailers about breaking the long-standing rule of keeping banana prices low.

The problem of low banana prices is exactly what Equifruit aims to address. Every business should solve a problem, and ours is to tackle the negative impacts of such pricing strategies. Bananas shouldn’t be so cheap. 

Let’s look at U.S. data on produce pricing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes average retail prices for various goods, including produce, with data available online starting from 1980. In January of 1980, bananas were priced at 31.9 cents per pound, while oranges were at 33.9 cents per pound. After adjusting for inflation, the price of bananas would be around $1.29 per pound today, and oranges $1.37 per pound.

In April 2024, the average retail price for oranges reached $1.47 per pound, outpacing inflation. But the average retail price for bananas is just 61.6 cents per pound. That is less than half of what it would be if it had just kept pace with inflation. 

What do these low prices result from? And what do you say to retailers to try to get them to change course?

When we pitch to retailers, we say to them that this doesn’t make any sense. The persistently low banana prices result from pressure on the supply chain to cut costs, unfairly burdening small growers and plantation workers with poor wages and working conditions, and also the environmental damage to meet these price points. Retailers fear that even a slight increase in banana prices might drive customers away, but let’s consider the math: The average American consumes 27 pounds of bananas annually. Raising prices by 30 cents per pound would cost the average consumer just over $8 more per year, or less than a dollar a month.

When pitching to U.S. retailers, we emphasize that the fear of losing customers over minor price increases is unfounded. Our experience in Canada, where we’ve grown 50% already over the last year, supports this. Data proves that consumers will accept a modest increase in banana prices, which aligns with the values of sustainable sourcing that retailers claim to uphold. This is not just about price—it’s about respecting and supporting the people and environments that produce our food. We are committed to ensuring that if banana prices increase, it leads to a fairer distribution of value along the supply chain. That’s the core of our mission.

And rather than this being a downside for retailers’ businesses—something that they should be worried about—it will likely be celebrated by their customers. This will show a mark of respect for them: living the values that all of the grocery retailers purport to follow on sustainable sourcing.

How do retailers’ profits on banana sales tie into this?

I really want to make clear that fair trade should be fair along the entire supply chain. We aren’t asking retailers not to make margin on bananas. Sure, do a reset, raise the prices, and make a little bit more margin for yourselves, but do it on the basis of fair trade purchasing to ensure that there has been a fair distribution of value. This approach guarantees that the banana business model remains sustainable—economically, socially and environmentally.

In our discussions with retailers, many of them say that bananas shouldn’t be so cheap, and they acknowledge they have been losing money on bananas for years. Now is the time for change; don’t make people who were not consulted take the losses along with you.

Has everything got a lot more difficult for you now considering the high food price inflation of the past couple of years and the increased price sensitivity of consumers?

We’re still trying to figure out how we feel about inflation, in Canada at least. Inflation and low food prices have become highly politicized in Canada, and similarly in the U.S., which adds stress to retailers who want to collaborate with Equifruit and support our mission. They understand the need for change in the banana industry but also fear political backlash for raising prices, even in light of the data I’ve shared.

I understand there is a desperate segment of the North American population that lives with food insecurity, and then there is another segment that is feeling the pinch overall through the cost-of-living increase. But in Canada, we’re only a 2% market share for Fairtrade. So if we doubled our market share, we would still be able to sell to a customer base that is not particularly affected by the cost-of-living crisis. To those people, an extra US$8 per year would not make a difference.

Also, 40% of bananas imported into North America originate from Guatemala, under conditions that contribute to the migration crisis at the U.S. southern border. Retailers attract customers with low banana prices, but this practice exacerbates the issues driving migration.

Our aim at Equifruit is to shift this narrative and encourage a cooperative approach to reforming the banana supply chain. By doing so, retailers can increase their margins, and customers will respect and support these changes. Through effective marketing and point-of-sale strategies, we can turn a serious issue into a positive shopping experience that leaves customers informed and satisfied.

What do you think would be the best way for retailers to achieve this?

In Europe, specifically Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, major retailers have collaborated to ensure living wages in their banana supply chains. These efforts, involving major players, cover about 85% of sales and have really broadened the discussion on responsible procurement and value chains. These collaborations have been approved by national competition bureaus and focus on establishing living wage benchmarks in sourcing countries, rather than through discussing prices directly.

I dream of seeing similar initiatives in the United States and Canada. But, we are still primarily focused on raising awareness about the need for change in banana procurement practices. Ideally, a third party from civil society, without commercial interests in the banana market, would lead these efforts to ensure fairness and transparency. While Equifruit is committed to the impact on growers, I am also aware of potential skepticism toward us spearheading such initiatives due to our commercial interests.

What are your final thoughts on this discussion?

I realize that a lot of this discussion is kind of heavy weather, but we’re having a lot of fun doing this despite the serious issues we are tackling. We’re trying to make people feel good and make a positive change so that we will have this impact. Our company vision is ‘Global Fairtrade Banana Domination,’ which is kind of our tongue-in-cheek way of saying—in a way that makes people laugh—that we are agents of change. 

We want to see the whole banana industry transformed. Only 4% of the global industry is currently bought on fair trade terms, but we want to change that—and we want to be at the forefront of that change, doing it through the Equifruit brand. We are transparent both in presenting the historical and current problem to buyers, but also in offering a solution. We sometimes call ourselves a 21st-century banana company—one that has left that old banana model in the past and is looking to convert a new generation to a sustainably-grown banana that also makes you laugh.